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Why does my preschooler purposely bang his head?
Head banging is surprisingly common. Up to 20 percent of babies and toddlers bang their head on purpose, although boys are three times more likely to do it than girls. Head banging often starts in the second half of the first year and peaks between 18 and 24 months of age. A child's head banging habit may last for several months, or even years, though most children outgrow it by age 3.
Possibly reasons your preschooler may bang his head:
- Self-comfort. As strange as it may sound, most children who bang their heads do it to relax. Your child may bang his head rhythmically as he's falling asleep, when he wakes up in the middle of the night, or even while he's sleeping. He may rock on all fours as well. Developmental experts believe that the rhythmic motion, like rocking in a chair, may help your baby child soothe himself.
- Pain relief. A child is more likely to bang his head when he has an ear infection or is suffering from some other physical discomfort. Head banging may help him feel better, perhaps by distracting him from the pain he's feeling elsewhere.
- Frustration. Your young child may bang his head during temper tantrums as a way of venting strong emotions. He hasn't yet learned to express his feelings adequately through words, so he uses physical actions. And again, he may be comforting himself during his very stressful event.
- A need for attention. Ongoing head banging may be a way for your child to get your attention. Understandably enough, you probably become solicitous when you see your child doing something that appears to be self-destructive. And since he likes it when you fuss over his behavior, he may continue the head banging in order to get the attention he wants.
- A developmental problem. Head banging can be associated with autism and other developmental disorders— but in most of these cases, it's just one of many behavioral red flags. Rarely does head banging alone signal a serious problem.
What can I do about it?
Give your child your attention — but not when he's banging.
Make sure your child gets plenty of positive attention from you when he's not banging his head. If he still bangs his head to get your attention, though, try not to make a big deal about it, or you may reinforce the behavior. Even if you can't completely disregard the behavior, don't scold or punish him for it. Your disapproval may only make matters worse.
Protect your child from injury.
If he's still in his crib, check all the crib screws and bolts once a month or more to make sure the rocking isn't loosening them. You can also put rubber casters on the crib legs and hang soft fabric or a quilt between the crib and the wall to reduce noise and to minimize wear and tear on the walls and floor. If he sleeps in a regular bed, think about moving it away from the wall to reduce his access to hard surfaces.
Try not to worry.
Your preschooler may get a bruise or two, but don't worry — head banging is usually a "self-regulating" behavior. This means your child is unlikely to hit his head hard enough to seriously injure himself. He knows his threshold for pain and will pull back on the throttle a bit if the banging hurts.
Help foster your child's love of rhythm in other ways.
He clearly likes a good steady beat, so help him find alternative forms of rhythmic expression, such as dancing, marching, clapping to music, or beating on toy bongo drums. You might also try putting a metronome in your child's room to give him the comfort of a steady rhythm. Make sure he gets lots of physical exercise during the day, too, to help him burn off some of the nervous energy that may feed his head banging.
Start a soothing bedtime routine.
If your child's banging his head as a way of "coming down" from his busy day, a relaxing routine can help. Try a warm bath, a calm rock on your lap, a backrub and a quiet story or song before lights out. Soft music in his bedroom can be soothing, too.
Consult a doctor if your child's behavior becomes worrisome.
If your child bangs his head a lot during the day or continues to bang his head even though he's hurting himself, you may have cause for concern. Though it's uncommon, head banging can be associated with autism and other developmental disorders, which sometimes become apparent during the toddler and preschool years.
Autistic children generally don't relate well to people. They often aren't interested in physical contact with their parents and seem to look through people rather than at them. If you notice that your child is losing physical abilities, language, or other skills he's acquired; if he's becoming increasingly withdrawn; or if he's consistently delayed in achieving common developmental milestones, check with his doctor.